Sometimes, the truth is a hard pill to swallow. If you’re a Devils fan, a refrain you’ve heard endlessly throughout your existence as a hockey fan is that the Devils play dull, boring NHL hockey. There are points in the franchise’s existence when this has been a lazy narrative pinned on some dominant teams, particularly in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the Devils owned one of the league’s best offenses. Recently however, the argument that the Devils play boring hockey has been increasingly difficult to refute.
Obviously, “boring” is in the eye of the beholder and, at this point, if the Devils could win games 0.5 to 0, I’d probably take it and love every second of it if it meant getting back to the playoffs. But from a purely objective standpoint, we don’t have much of a leg to stand on in recent seasons, when the Devils offense has consistently taken up residence in a last or last-adjacent location in even strength and all-situations scoring. Just looking at a team’s scoring output is probably a somewhat imprecise measure of excitement, but if you’re one of the worst offenses in the league, you’re probably not setting the world on fire every night. Plainly, Devils hockey has been a bit of a dry experience for spectators throughout their recent substandard seasons.
At this point, you’re probably asking “Okay fine, now what is your point, Mike?” The point is that while most Devils fans would agree that wins are fun whether they are high-scoring or not, the current iteration of the Devils, by virtue of having one of the league’s worst offenses, are being killed by that boringness. In the past several years, the Devils defense and/or goaltending (though, admittedly, rarely both simultaneously) has been good enough to hang around in games and remain in the playoff hunt relatively deep into the season, save 2014-15. But their inability to create opportunities on offense and put pucks in the net has undercut them consistently. Despite finishing in the top half of the league in goals allowed each of the past four seasons, the team's woeful offense has consistently dragged them to finishes of 20th place or worse. Below is a table of the Devils 5-on-5 an all situations scoring over the past nine seasons.
Yes, the Devils haven’t finished better than 28th in 5v5 offense and 27th in all situations offense in the past four seasons. Only the Sabres, who have been a truly putrid team, have had a worse offense, cumulatively, over that span. You might also notice that the Devils were actually able to muster a mediocre-to-middling offense in three seasons since 2007-08. Points totals in those three seasons (2008-09, 2009-10, 2011-12)? 106, 103, and 102, respectively. So recent history indicates that if the Devils’ offense can simply get out of their own way and be something approaching “meh,” instead of one of the league’s worst, the Devils are pretty well positioned for a playoff berth.
So the million dollar question for the Devils this season is can they reach that modest threshold of having an offense that isn’t among the league’s least effective? If they want this season to be the one where they make a return trip to the playoffs, they will almost certainly have to. But what can the Devils count on changing from an offense that just a season ago had the worst scoring rate in the entire NHL? Some potential difference makers arriving from both inside and outside of the organization are what the Devils are banking on in 2016-17.
The biggest and most obvious of those difference makers is new winger Taylor Hall, who arrived from Edmonton after being traded for Adam Larsson this summer. The Devils have had some successful individual offensive efforts in the past few years (such as Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique reaching the 30-goal mark last season) but Hall represents the potentially the most prolific offensive player for New Jersey in years. One of the best wingers in the league, Hall has the ability to not only score, but also make plays and drive possession for his team and he’s good enough to make the players around him better. Perhaps most importantly, Hall is one of the league’s best players at even strength, where the Devils have been particularly miserable at scoring in recent years. The Devils will be hoping that he can help elevate an offense that hasn’t cracked 2 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2011-12.
Beyond Hall, some of the Devils best hopes at improving the offense come in the form of their youth. Sixth overall pick from 2015 Pavel Zacha may be the biggest wild card, with the question being whether he will make the leap to the NHL this season as a top-9 center or return to juniors for another season. If Zacha becomes a viable NHL contributor this season, it could go a long way toward addressing what is the Devils’ biggest shortcoming on offense, depth. Beyond Zacha, the Devils will also be hoping that players like Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi can build on solid performances in last season’s second half. New Jersey seems to have the players to mostly fill out an effective top-6, but if the youth pans out, they could be deep enough to have a bottom-6 that can actually contribute and make the offense a serviceable one.
There are certainly some things that could derail the goal of escaping the league’s bottom five in offense, though, and chief among them is probably the blue line. The potential lack of depth and skill on defense means that, even with a solid group of forwards, the Devils could struggle to produce offense on a consistent basis due to an inability to transition. It also remains to be seen if John Hynes’ system will be able to utilize the speedy, attacking group being assembled effectively on offense. Last season, the team exceeded low expectations in what was effectively a coaching mulligan for Hynes, but with new players arriving and expectations a bit higher, people in New Jersey will probably be hoping for an offense better than “worst in the league.”
Having a so-called boring team that wins has never been a problem for me (or most other Devils fans, I imagine), but having a team that is consistently getting undercut in the standings by its own boringness via a complete lack of offensive power is considerably less fun. Wanting a team to get in the vicinity of the 20th best offense in the league doesn’t seem like the loftiest goal, but given how the Devils struggles when it comes to scoring, it would be a tremendous step toward getting back to the postseason. Now, improving the offense to the mythical plateau of “mediocre” certainly doesn’t guarantee a run to the playoffs. There are certainly more question marks on defense than there’s been in a while in New Jersey, which could lead to some struggles in preventing goals, but a healthy Cory Schneider is about as close to a sure thing in net as there is in this league. So if the Devils can score at any kind of decent pace, they will have a terrific shot at being in the playoff hunt when April rolls around.